Images of the papal passion

Similar to the images of Terri Schiavo, the circulation of images of Pope John Paul, who has been described as “increasingly frail” for years now, are stimulating a range of mythic possibilities from conspiratorial narratives of the propped-up puppet to sanctifying stories of the ecstatic martyr. This extraordinary set of images from his appearance at the easter ceremonies was published in the Telegraph.

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Interestingly for a story so focused on the visual it begins: “The Pope struggled hard to find his voice to address pilgrims assembled in Rome yesterday for the traditional Easter Mass.” This pope, who has used his papacy as a bully-pulpit, now finally reduced to silence still some how turns this very silence into a perverse vocalisation of courage.

Is he yawning? Is he in pain? Is he angry and out of control? It appears from the report that in the final frame he is not hitting himself in frustration but merely making the sign of the cross. But what are we seeing here? Through the eyes of the faithful there is another story:

“Oh no!” said Maria Romero, from Peru, as the Pope’s aide took away the microphone. “The poor man can’t speak,” she said, tears streaming down her face.

However it is not just the eyes of the faithful who are constructing these images in this way. According to the Telegraph report, Italian state television called yesterday’s appearance the “most moving and poignant of his pontificate”. We are we embroiled here not just in the pope’s private passion play but in an on going story of western culture that is reified and retold by a range of institutions: journalistic, medical, political and religious.

These images of the distressed pope are not really new we can take other images from much earlier in his pontificate in which his devotional posture creates an other worldly sense of ecstatic martyred pain. This is very clear in an image from the PBS series on “the millennial pope” where his prayerfully contorted faith is propped against his ceremonial cross.

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These images are stock images of our christian culture but it is fascinating to see them played out in such a widely diverse and mediated way.

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